Study looks at experiences of gay Mormons

Associated Press/July 31, 2011

Salt Lake City - Evan Clayson came out as gay to his Mormon congregation from the pulpit in Houston earlier this year.

"I was asked to talk about how the Holy Ghost can be a comforter," the 24-year-old software developer said. "I talked about relying on the Holy Ghost to boost my self-esteem ... It got a positive reaction. I had a couple of members give me hugs."

But like many gay Mormons, Clayson wasn't always so open, given the church's stance on homosexuality.

Like many faiths, Mormonism teaches that any sexual relationship outside of traditional marriage is a sin, and in the past, the church preached that homosexual feelings, alone, were a sin. One faith leader last year even suggested gays could change their sexual orientation through prayer.

So as a teen growing up in west Texas, Clayson skirted the issue with his parents, who are devout members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with 10 children.

Watching television one day with his mother, Clayson said he pointed out that one of the "Survivor" cast members was both gay and Mormon.

"She said, 'You can't be both,'" Clayson said.

It's a dilemma many gays in the church face as they struggle with their identities as both homosexual and religious faithful.

Clayson is among nearly 1,000 others who are sharing their experiences with researchers at Utah State University, where an online study of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Mormons is under way. The research is believed to be the first to focus specifically on the gay Mormon demographic, said Renee Galliher, a USU associate professor of psychology who is leading the study.

"The broad goal is to provide a better description of how LGBT people function within the Mormon church," said Galliher, who is working alongside Brigham Young University emeritus biology professor Bill Bradshaw.

"You'll see that we're asking them to talk with us about a whole range of experiences both related to and unrelated to their religiosity," she said.

Galliher is neither gay nor Mormon. Bradshaw is a Latter-day Saint and the father of a gay son.

Their study was prompted by a shared interest in separating truth from myth in the gay Mormon experience. They also share a hope that the data gathered will provide insight and understanding that can be useful to Mormon church leaders and families.

The 149-question survey is being promoted through a network of support groups for gays with ties to Mormonism.

The groups encompass a wide spectrum of perspectives - from gay Mormon fathers to gays married to heterosexual partners and those who believe sexual orientation can be altered - something researchers hope will guarantee that the data doesn't just reflect a set of stereotypes.

"We've tried to develop a survey that was framed neutrally enough that people would be able to tell their stories, whatever their story is," Galliher said.

Among the questions: Have respondents experienced negative teasing or violence within the Latter-day Saint community? And how do they view God's response to their sexual orientation?

The survey also asks respondents to describe their commitment to Mormon teachings before and after accepting their sexual orientation and to describe their current emotional and spiritual relationship to the church.

Those can be complicated questions for individuals who grew up in a faith where theology and culture are so deeply entwined.

"(My dad) told me that God would never make someone gay," said Drew Stelter, a surgical technician at a suburban Salt Lake City hospital. He believes he knew as early as age 12 that he was gay.

The 21-year-old said his struggles were not met with compassion from his church leaders, but instead with indifference and the suggestion that perhaps what he needed was "blessing to cast the evil spirits out."

"I'm still resentful," said Stelter, who also claims to have attempted suicide in the sixth grade.

While the church has historically frowned upon homosexuality, since the 1990s, leaders have softened their stance to differentiate between feelings and actions.

Leaders now say the origins of homosexuality aren't fully understood and disciplinary action or excommunication is typically limited to those found to actually be engaging in homosexual activity.

"The sin is in yielding to temptation," Church Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the faith's Quorum of Twelve Apostles, said in 2007.

Celibate gays can retain full membership in the faith. Most disciplinary action is left up to individual church bishops.

The church opposes gay marriage - and has worked against political efforts to legalize it - but in 2008 said it does not oppose civil unions or other gay rights legislation as long as those initiatives don't infringe on the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches.

Mormons have also been counseled by their leaders to reach out to gay Mormons with compassion and love, although some remnants of past attitudes persist.

Last fall, church elder Boyd K. Packer, who is next in line for the faith's presidency, said publicly that he believed gays could change their orientation through prayer. His words prompted a backlash from gay activists who said such remarks were harmful and factually inaccurate.

For Stelter, Packer's words were the endnote to a years-long process that led him to resign his church membership.

"I prayed about it, but every day I would get a sign," said Stelter, who describes himself as a cultural Mormon who remains deeply spiritual. "I'm grateful for my experiences."

For his part, Clayson has found a comfortable space living between faith and sexuality.

"I think I've found a way to balance it out," Clayson said. "I think (the church) instilled in me some core beliefs that I still hold today. I believe that I'm a child of God and I believe that he loves me. That's one belief that is of infinite worth to me.

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